Betty Friedan

American History, Feminism

Just about everyone alive in 1963 remembers where they were when John Kennedy was shot. In the same way, a lot of us today remember where we were and how we felt when we read The Feminine Mystique.

Mystique
was published in that pivotal year 1963, although I didn’t read it until 1969. It took some time for second-wave feminism to reach the Ozarks.

The power of Mystique was in its revelation of something we already knew but weren’t yet cognizant of knowing. Her description of The Problem That Has No Name reached deep into our heads. It hauled truth from a deep, subconscious place into the clarity of full consciousness.

Some of Friedan’s speculations on why women had become so marginalized in the post World War II era don’t stand the test of time, to be sure. But though her theories of the cause of the disease may have been flawed, she diagnosed the illness perfectly. Women were moved by Mystique not because they were intellectually persuaded, but because they recognized themselves in its pages.

Patricia Sullivan writes in the Washington Post: “Her insights into what she described as the soul-draining frustrations felt by educated, stay-at-home women in the 1950s, ‘the problem that has no name,’ startled a society that expected women to be happy with marriage and children.” Startled puts it mildly. Mystique set souls on fire.

Mystique was less a catalog of the oppression of women throughout time than an exploration of the way sexual stereotyping and gender roles had changed after World War II, and how as a result women in the 1960s were leading desperately constricted lives. I think you had to be there to understand how much the world has changed since then. Even the most hidebound, conservative traditionalists in America today would be considered “liberal” on women’s issues by the standards of 1963. Although many won’t admit it, in a sense we’re nearly all feminists now.

Second-wave feminism started out as a movement of mostly educated and reasonably affluent white women. It caught some flack for that, but as I remember the suffragette movement was also fueled mostly by educated and reasonably affluent white women. This is possibly because it took some education and some affluence to launch a women’s movement at all; poorer and less well educated women were too crushed by circumstance to even think about movements.

Also, originally, it focused a great deal on marriage and family issues, on taking on the roles of wife and mother without completely losing yourself in the process.

I heard Friedan speak once, at the University of Missouri ca. 1972. She said one thing I still remember — I never said marriage and children weren’t important things in a woman’s life. I said they weren’t the only things in a woman’s life. Sullivan of WaPo continues,

Friedan’s was a voice that was loud, insistent and sometimes divisive. She split with NOW in the 1970s after she came to believe that the organization focused too many resources on lesbian issues and that too many feminists hated men. Her 1981 book “The Second Stage” prompted some feminists to denounce her as reactionary.

I’m not so sure she split with NOW as was driven out of it. In the 1970s, I well remember, many NOW chapters became more radicalized, which alienated many of the same educated and reasonably affluent white women who had embraced second wave feminism in the 1960s. I don’t know how much of this was the fault of feminist leadership, or whether it was just another aspect of the “eating their own” frenzy the American Left was experiencing at the time. In any event, Friedan’s concerns about how to be a wife and mother and feminist at the same time became passé.

When the Equal Rights Amendment went down to defeat ca. 1980 the feminist movement splintered into myriad feminisms; IMO there really hasn’t been “A Feminist Movement” since except in the imaginations of righties who continue to demonize it. Yet by then American women had accomplished much to break the constraints of the 1950s.

Betty Friedan died of congestive heart failure yesterday. She was 85 years old.

What else can I say, but —You did good, Betty. Thanks.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. justme  •  Feb 5, 2006 @2:28 pm

    The death of Betty made me see how far we have yet to go.With the recent deaths of Mrs.King and Mrs.Parks,I statred thinking about how those who stood for civil rights .They did extraordinary things to stand for what they believed was right.

    My one regret about these folks was that they did not teach us that the fight for civil rights continues today.The torch needed to be passed on.I think Americans tend to look at these Icons and see someone who they believe has done their work for them, rather then seeing the need to , if I may borrow the words, “keep the dream alive”..As a result,when I look around for the next Betty Friedan, or the next Rosa Parks, when I look for the next person ,I see no one.

    Maybe I don’t see it where I live,,,it could be happening and I don’t know it, but Since the ERA failed to happen it seems like the movement died.I was young then, and growing up in a home where feminist thoughts were not allowed,I remember thinking then when it didn’t pass , that women, in fact were not equal.

    The adults in the neoconservative household I grew up in were thrilled at the ERA’S defeat.They had won, women were not equal and therefore they should just go home and bake and “stop trying to be men”.Happy that women had been”put in their place”,things went back to normal, and the righties knew they had demoralized women to the point where they would not be back to stand for another ERA.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t women out number men now?.We still make less on the dollar then a man.We are still the minority in government and the courts.Soon the government will be making medical choices for us,, since we are still not considered equal, we mustn’t be trusted with such matters ourselves.

    Our fight is far from over, the fight never should have been allowed to end. The torch went out, rather then being passed and now look at what is happening.The minute civil rights ground is left un-guarded it is retaken.Once we take even a tiny step to regain some , SOMEONE must stand guard of it with as much resolve as it took to fight and gain it, and never for a second turn away.

    Without a powerful force on every civil rights front to stand guard of them even when they are taken for granted, all the people like Betty and Rosa, and Mrs.King fought for nothing

  2. Lynne  •  Feb 5, 2006 @3:21 pm

    I read The Feminine Mystique when I was a sophomore in college in 1964. It made a lasting impact on me, and I looked at literature with different eyes from then on. I didn’t truly realize how important the stuggle was until 1980, when I divorced and tried to get employment. It took a long time.

    I don’t think the fight was abandoned. It splintered and lost its unified force. And younger women have grown up complacent, never knowing how awful a paternal and patronizing society is firsthand. We must never give up. All society depends upon this.

  3. Karen  •  Feb 10, 2006 @8:46 am

    Saw you on C-Span; why were you under the furniture?